The Oscar media circus - something we all wanted
We could have made a joint decision, all the news organisations in South Africa, to only cover the Oscar Pistorius trial to the extent warranted, minus the wallowing in emotional drama.
We didn’t. Instead we went down the path so broadly blazed by our American cousins: we gave the public what it wanted instead of what it needs. We refused to be the authoritarians who make everyone eat their vegetables.
In a better world, we would have had a purer motive for giving in. We would have done so in the knowledge that our ungovernable audiences would simply rush off and stuff themselves with sugar at the first opportunity. That would certainly have been true; had we tried to deny them the delights of the Pistorius revels they would have flowed, like water, to wherever the Pistorius coverage was being broadcast. And if we were to deny them that coverage at reputable news organisations, they’d flow all the way down the gutter, to where innuendo equals fact and the exact volume of vomit produced is of central importance.
This is not that better world. Our motives for giving in to the inevitable were far more base. In the end, we covered Pistorius because we wanted to. Because, ever so secretly, we too enjoyed the melodrama and the artificially induced tension and the smashing of the feet of clay of the once-idol. And perhaps because we’ve seen the future of our industry, when the money finally runs out, and Pistorius allowed us to woo readers back, if only briefly.
Some tried to make the best of a bad situation. For the first time there was insatiable interest in the criminal justice system, adversarial justice, the conditions of prisons, the implications of disability, the inexplicable phenomenon of femicide – or so we thought. So we added a bit of nutritional value to the spectacle sugar, a bit of context here and a little insight there. We salved our self-loathing with the balm of education.
We were, of course, as naive as we were well-intentioned. The national conversation was never going to be about differentiated justice for the rich in general, it was always going to be about the sentence that was shorter than it should have been because Pistorius is famous. There was never going to be an informed debate about the continuing evolution of dolus eventualis, it was always going to be a shouting match about which family was suffering the greater trauma.
The best we can hope is that in the broad sweep of history the Pistorius trial turns out to be a dress rehearsal rather than a precedent. Perhaps, next time, we can find some magic that allows us to make it about the issues and not the individuals, to filter out the ill-informed insults about the judge and zoom in on the structural problems in our institutions.
Don’t hold your breath though. The courts, Judge Thokozile Masipa said in her sentencing of Pistorius, are not a popularity contest. But the media, unfortunately, is.